Only One Answer

As we go to press, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s desperate appeals to the United States and NATO for the imposition of a no-fly zone over his country’s airspace has met with a resolute “No.”

Normally, when such phrases as “as we go to press” are used, it is meant to indicate to the reader that the comments that follow are subject to rapidly changing events.

In this case, however, it is unlikely that it will change.

As united as the Western powers are in their support for Ukraine, they are united in the limits to that support. They will continue to provide arms and humanitarian aid and they will punish Russia with unprecedented economic sanctions; but they will not do anything to provoke a direct military confrontation with Putin the Invader.

Zelensky’s position is understandable: As thousands of soldiers and civilians are killed and millions made homeless, with the very survival of Ukraine at risk, he believes that his Western friends should likewise be willing to make sacrifices and take risks to repel this unprovoked aggression which is aimed not only at destroying Ukraine but the post-World War Two international order as well.

In a dramatically accusatory speech, Zelensky declared that refusal to set up a no-fly zone effectively “gave the green light for further bombing of Ukrainian cities and villages. … All the people who die from this day forward will also die because of you.”

The Ukrainian President may be said to have a point. But the Western response has been unequivocal.

As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg put it: “We should not have NATO planes operating over Ukrainian airspace or NATO troops operating in Ukrainian territory. We are not part of this conflict. We have a responsibility as NATO allies to prevent this war from escalating beyond Ukraine because that would be even more dangerous, more devastating and would cause even more human suffering.”

The escalation referred to is not only an expanded war involving NATO planes and ultimately ground forces, as horrific as that would be; it refers also to the formerly unthinkable prospect of nuclear war.

Formerly — because Russian President Vladimir Putin has given the West to understand that he has thought about it and is not afraid of it. Recently, he ordered Russian nuclear forces to be put on “high alert,” and warned that if NATO were to enter the conflict, his nuclear arsenal could be deployed.

In addition, as the invasion proceeded, Russian ground forces attacked and seized the nuclear plant in Zaporizhzhia, the largest in Europe. Shelling of the complex started a fire, which caused grave concern. Fortunately, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog said radiation levels and the safety of reactors were not affected.

But the reckless manner in which the Russian military endangered the safety of the entire region ramped up fears about what this “special military operation,” as Putin calls it, might lead to, whether by intention or by accident.

There are few people around these days, in the second week of the invasion, who will disregard Putin’s threat as a bluff, that he might threaten but he would never do such a thing. Many, including officials at the highest echelons, thought that his threats to invade Ukraine, even after massing 150,000 troops on the border, would not be carried out. These were merely scare tactics designed to elicit concessions, chiefly a guarantee that NATO would not grant membership to Ukraine.

But if Putin did the unthinkable by invading Ukraine, who can say he would not do the unthinkable and unleash nuclear weapons to finish the job?

Some people have suggested that Putin is a madman for even making such threats. That may be so, but it is beside the point. The U.S. and NATO cannot take the chance of testing his resolve or his sanity. On the contrary, if the Russian leader has become irrational, all the more reason to act with caution.

Robert McNamara once made an important observation during his tenure as Secretary of Defense about the difference between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons: “They’re the same, there’s no difference, once you use them, you use everything else. You can’t keep them limited. You’ll destroy Europe, everything.”

That’s why McNamara worked so hard for nuclear arms treaties. That’s why the possibility of Putin using tactical nuclear weapons is so frightening.

In light of all this, the West is to a large extent helpless. As long as Putin is willing to absorb the economic damage that the sanctions are causing his country, there is no way to stop him, short of risking a world war and even possibly a nuclear war. And that is a line no Western government is willing to cross.

What, then, is the solution?

There is no solution. Except that which is known to HaKadosh Baruch Hu. May He answer our tefillos and speedily bring an end to this war and all the suffering it has brought.

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